NORTH WILDWOOD, N.J. — Snorting smoke and wearing an "I love Wildwood" T-shirt, King Kong again clings to a 60-foot lighthouse towering over the shore town's boardwalk. Eight vintage planes circle the gorilla, bringing riders 26 feet in air.
For most of the 1970s, the giant ape ride graced Morey's Pier, only to be removed in 1980. This summer, the ferocious beast returned to a New Jersey town known for embracing nostalgia and trumpeting its kitsch.
"Classics like Kong matter," Jack Morey, second generation partner in Morey's Piers, said in an email. "Great amusement parks focus not just on the new, not just on the most dazzling, scariest ride, but on the old, too."
Highlighting a storied character like King Kong is part of a trend in the amusement industry, said Cynthia Sharpe, senior director of cultural attractions and research at the Thinkwell Group. In the 1980s, it was who had the biggest coaster. Now it's who has the biggest intellectual property, like "Harry Potter" or "Star Wars," especially at theme parks, she added.
"Regional parks establish relations with brands not as powerful as 'Star Wars' but brands that still have great resonance for a percentage of the population," she noted.
But the differences between the big theme parks and Morey's Pier often overshadow the similarities that go with tapping iconic figures.
"We're not a theme park," Morey said. "What we do here is largely a reinvention of the world's first parks and gathering places. Places like Santa Monica Pier, Santa Cruz Beach and Boardwalk, and Coney Island have a very different, more storied existence and — and unlike gated parks — they have free access to the public."
The late historical architect Steven Izenour referred to the Wildwoods as one of the last "down and dirty, tacky with a capital T, beach resorts." He meant that as a good thing, and the new ride on Surfside Pier, one of three amusement parks under the Morey banner on the boardwalk, takes tacky to new heights.
"In an increasingly homogenized commercial world, it's the perfect counter punch strategy and nobody, not even Disney, can beat you at your game," he said in a letter to Morey in 1996, a time when he and fellow architects put the Wildwoods under a microscope to create a blueprint for the resorts' future. That future trumpeted rather than hid the kitsch, not just on amusement piers but throughout the Wildwoods, where "Doo Wop" motels born in the 1950s and 1960s are still celebrated.
When Steve Lara arrived at Morey's Piers last week for the 10th straight summer, the Rochester, New York, resident looked forward to the King Kong ride.
"It's a new and different experience," Lara said about the two-minute ride.
Lara and his sons, Andrew, 13, and Matthew, 10, hoped for something scarier or faster out of Kong.
"I thought we would control the planes to go up and down," Matthew said.
Added Steve, "But it's still a fun ride."
Those words are music to Morey's ears.
"We are really in the theatre business," he said. "Take away the people, and the place loses all its energy. So, yes, Kong is our latest new ride and a flashback, but at its core it is just a mechanism by which to make people smile, laugh, and relax away from the pressures of daily life at home."
William Sokolic, The Associated Press